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Issue No. 48 (October 2003) -- Mark Satin, Editor
For many years, no matter what our politics, we identified -- passionately -- with American nationalists. If it wasn’t Theodore Roosevelt, then it was William Jennings Bryan; if it wasn’t George McGovern calling “Come home, America!,” then it was Ronald Reagan with his shining city on the hill.
Even today’s supposed “rebels” play the nationalist card -- for example, Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan both fiercely oppose the World Trade Organization. No wonder politicians, activists, and policy analysts continue to suppose that any deviation from romantic nationalism would be suicidal.
Talk with Americans in any depth, though, and you’ll get a very different sense of our loyalties now.
We still love this country. But maybe because we’re well over 200 years old, now -- or maybe because we’re becoming just a lot more aware of the larger world outside -- our nationalism is changing its spots. You might even say it’s beginning to shade into a tentative and thoughtful cosmopolitanism.
The people speak (I)
Alan Wolfe, formerly a Sixties radical, is now one of the leading sociologists in the U.S., and he and his assistant, Maria Poarch, recently conducted an in-depth survey of the political opinions of hundreds of Americans in eight representative communities from coast to coast (see esp. One Nation, After All, 1998).
“What we discovered,” Mr. Wolfe says, “is something that can be called ‘mature patriotism,’ formed by movement on both sides of the Vietnam divide. . . .
“According to many of those with whom we talked, patriotism is no longer ‘Mom-baseball-apple pie stuff.’ . . . The old symbols do not quite work the way they used to. One reason is a change in gender norms. . . .
“There is, a number of respondents believed, no reason to lament the passing of the ‘my country right or wrong’ attitude. America, in their opinion, has simply grown up.”
Wolfe and Poarch discovered something else as well, something subtly connected to our mature patriotism. They call it “tempered internationalism.”
“This . . . sense of tempered internationalism was strongly reflected in our interviews,” Mr. Wolfe says. “Middle-class Americans are fully aware of how tragic is the situation in Bosnia or how needy are the orphans created by tribal wars in Africa. When it comes to helping people abroad, a strong sense of Christian duty in some cases and a feeling that America has special obligations in others combine to restrict isolationist inclinations.”
The people speak (II)
Wolfe and Poarch are academics in leafy Boston; Steven Kull and I.M. Destler are public opinion analysts in the harder-edged universe of Washington, D.C. But their recent book Misreading the Public (1999), and the many public opinion surveys they’ve conducted, suggest that Wolfe and Poarch are onto something big.
Most Americans are neither starry-eyed nationalists nor hunkered-down populists, say Kull and Destler. “The majority of the public” wants U.S. foreign policy to be “prompted by an expansive concept of the U.S. national interest that recognizes growing U.S. interdependence with the world.”
Some of their evidence is deeply moving. For example, they note that an overwhelming 86% of us agree that “The U.S. should provide food and medical assistance to people in needy countries.”
Over 75% agree that “The U.S. should help needy countries develop their economies.”
When Americans are asked to set an appropriate level for U.S. foreign aid spending, the median response is 5% of the federal budget -- more than five times the actual spending level. Only 17% of all respondents say the appropriate amount would be under 1% of the budget!
An extraordinary 92% of us believe that strengthening the U.N. should be a foreign policy goal for the U.S. Support for strengthening the U.N. even extends to radical middle ideas such as giving the U.N. the power to collect taxes -- e.g., 72% of us agree that “the U.N. should monitor and tax international arms sales with the money going to famine relief and humanitarian aid.”
The advocates speak
Although virtually all our politicians (and -- sad to say -- most political activists) remain wedded to prideful nationalism or embattled populism, others have begun to articulate a thoughtful and life-affirming cosmopolitanism.
First in time and first in depth is Martha Nussbaum. To say she’s a law and ethics professor at the University of Chicago doesn’t begin to do justice to the (cosmopolitan) range of her identities -- weight-lifter and marathon runner; passionate advocate of the humanities approach to education (when broadened to include non-Western cultures); radical middle feminist; champion of the ancient Stoics; former lover of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, and a better expositor of Sen’s concept of “human capacities” (the radical middle alternative to rights-based development) than he.
In For Love of Country? (1996, updated 2002), she introduces the concept of “cosmopolitanism” to the American political universe. The book actually models what some cosmopolitans call “moral dialogue” because Nussbaum’s initial essay is followed by (largely hostile) responses from a gaggle of liberals, radicals, and conservatives -- which are then followed by a (quietly devastating) “Reply” from Nussbaum. If the book doesn’t make you at least a cosmopolitan fellow traveler, then nothing will or can.
“As students here grow up,” she asks, “is it sufficient for them to learn that they are above all citizens of the U.S. but that they ought to respect the basic human rights of citizens of [faraway lands]? Or should they . . . instead be taught that they are, above all, citizens of a world of human beings, and that, while they happen to be situated in the U.S., they have to share this world with the citizens of other countries?” [emphases added - ed.].
Many of Ms. Nussbaum’s detractors think we can develop large loyalties only after imbibing small ones. “But surely the outer circle [of loyalties] is not the last to form,” she replies. “Long before children have any acquaintance with the idea of nation, or even of one specific religion, they know hunger and loneliness. . . . Long before ideology interferes, they know something of humanity. . . .
“[Cosmopolitans are those who have] not permitted the original awareness of common needs and vulnerabilities to be eclipsed by the local.”
Jason Hill, 37-year-old philosophy professor at DePaul University (who immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica on his own at the age of 20), is another rising spokesperson for political cosmopolitanism. He’s author of Becoming a Cosmopolitan: What It Means to Be a Human Being in the New Millennium (2000) and sponsor of the website “Millennial Ethical Cosmopolitanism” (http://condor.depaul.edu/~jhill6).
“We are radical resisters of the tribal status quo,” he says. “[We] care as deeply for a poor child in India, Africa, Guatemala, Romania, or Haiti as we do for those in our native lands. Our sentiments and moral commitments are not hijacked by separatist logic. . . .
“[T]here is a lot that interferes with our capacity to become fully human, but our proclivity for tribalism . . . is the major factor. . . . [C]osmopolitanism above all is a fight for a new moral self, a nontribal self.”
The philosophers speak
It is no accident that Ms. Nussbaum and Mr. Hill are professional philosophers. A philosophy revival is sweeping the nation’s high school and college campuses, focusing on “applied philosophy,” ethics, values, and philosophy-and-public-policy; and one of the reasons for its resurgence is the cosmopolitan message of the new philosophy.
Once the preserve of Western analytic thinkers, philosophy has become a vast stomping ground of Western, Chinese, Japanese, South Asian, Arabic, Persian, American Indian, Latin American, Afri- can, feminist, and esoteric thinkers, past and present.
The flagship textbook here is Helen Buss Mitchell’s Roots of Wisdom (3rd ed., 2002). It’s cleaning up at the high school and community college levels, but it’s also become a favorite in adult education courses -- PBS has even organized a “telecourse” around it (1-800-257-2578).
If you don’t have teen-age kids, then you haven’t seen anything like Roots of Wisdom. It’s full of cloyingly hip references to movies and popular music, and the writing style will make you think you’re sitting around a kitchen table -- Ms. Mitchell’s chapter on “Human Nature” begins, “Imagine that you have been having an Internet relationship with John for the past six months.”
But you will be impressed -- you may even be cosmopolitanized -- as you watch Ms. Mitchell move effortlessly, in that chapter, from the Judaic and Christian traditions, to the Greek rationalist tradition, to the “influence of Western essentialism on women,” to Robert Jay Lifton’s “protean self,” to Hinduism and Buddhism, to the “Chinese five-element view of the self,” and on to the “African synthesis model” of the self.
If you’re too self-conscious to be seen reading a philosophy textbook full of funny cartoons, then you’ll appreciate Ms. Mitchell’s university-level counterparts -- particularly Eliot Deutsch’s anthology Introduction to World Philosophies (Deutch teaches at the University of Hawaii with Jerry Bentley and Jim Dator, stars of issue #22) and three fabulous books put together by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins, professors of philosophy at the University of Texas -- From Africa to Zen, World Philosophy, and A Short History of Philosophy.
The last of these has been my subway reading lately. It’s less non-Western than Mr. Solomon and Ms. Higgins’s other books -- “only” about 20% of it concerns “Mysticism and Logic in Ancient India,” etc. -- but what I find exceptional and endearing about it is that the sensibility you develop by being attuned to other cultures and other ways of thinking is present on every page. It doesn’t just limn a more cosmopolitan approach to philosophy; it is that approach to philosophy, and to much more.
The rights workers speak
We’ve always had totemic books about the making of the U.S. Constitution -- books by eminent writers who both illuminated and mythologized the process. Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia is the classic nationalist totem, Charles and Mary Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution is the classic populist totem.
One way you can tell cosmopolitanism has arrived is we’ve just been given our first totemic book about the making of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- Mary Ann Glendon’s A World Made New (2001).
Ms. Glendon is the perfect author for it, a professor of comparative legal traditions who led the Vatican’s delegation to the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. And her book is a perfect totem: It’s as enthusiastic as Bowen’s and as unsentimental as the Beards’.
Just as the books about the Constitution bring you into the lives and thoughts of people like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington, so Ms. Glendon’s book brings you into the lives and thoughts of a new galaxy of heroes -- especially Peng-chun Chang, a Chinese diplomat and playwright “adept at translating across cultural divides”; Rene Cassin, “the legal genius of the Free French” who’d lost 29 relatives in concentration camps and was, to put it gently, high strung; Charles Malik, 40-year-old Lebanese existentialist philosopher turn- ed master diplomat; and, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt, who’d somehow managed to overcome deep State Department hostility to emerge as America’s chief human rights negotiator.
Read the book and at times you’ll swear you were back in Philadelphia in the 1780s, except with airplanes and telephones.
Will Chang, Cassin, Malik, Eleanor Roosevelt and company ever be as revered in our society as the framers of our Constitution? The (implicit) point of Glendon’s book is that they should be, and the sooner the better. Any cosmopolitan worth their salt would agree.
The travelers speak
Americans are voting with their feet for cosmopolitanism.
In 1989, 14.8 million U.S. citizens traveled outside North America -- i.e., beyond Canada or Mexico. By 1998, that number had risen to a whopping 23.1 million (source: U.S. Dept. of Commerce).
Our burgeoning curiosity about the world can be demonstrated by more than sheer numbers. You can see it in our travel guidebooks.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the dominant guidebook for sophisticated U.S. travelers was Fielding’s Travel Guide to Europe. Recently I had the Library of Congress retrieve the 1960-61 edition for me, and couldn’t believe my eyes.
It was a book for “ugly Americans” -- people who were accustomed to looking at the rest of the world with disdain and from On High.
You were told to pack enough clothes to fill several trunks (e.g., “7 neckties”). The descriptions of cities and museums were not particularly insightful. The most vivid single section was “Things to Buy.”
You were always being told about the “prettiest girls!,” as Mr. Fielding put it (e.g., in Italy, “once is often considered harmless, but twice is trouble. Twice, by remarkable and devious feminine reasoning, is an ‘affair.’”) You were also given the lowdown about other people: “The ubiquitous Sig. Doe of [southern Italy] is squat, with broad face and beetle brow. He is ignorant, superstitious, disinterested in government, touched only superficially by civilization.”
Not like Mr. Fielding and his many “civilized” readers.
Today’s travel guides tell you how far we’ve come toward true cosmopolitanism. Not one of Amazon.com’s Top 20 travel guidebook series, including such hasty tourists’ guides as Fodor’s Gold Guides and Frommer’s Complete Guides, would be congenial to the “ugly Americans” who sat at the feet of Temple Fielding.
And at least 10 series are savvy, informative, and genuinely respectful: Bradt Travel Guides, Cadogan Guides, Culture Shock!, Eyewitness Travel Guides, Footprint Handbooks, Knopf Guides, Let’s Go, Lonely Planet Travel Guides, Moon Handbooks, and Rough Guides. (Not incidentally, each series now has books on countries, cities, and/or regions in the developing world, not just Europe.)
Some of these series are so exceptional that they verge on literature. Cadogan is very, very good on cities, sights, history. Culture Shock! is extraordinary on the customs and etiquette of a place -- standards of appearance in the Czech Republic, eating at someone’s home in India.
Let’s Go is put together by sharp Harvard students for travellers with lots of energy but little money. And Knopf and Eyewitness are high-wire acts of modern print technology -- lush, glossy guidebooks full of small but exquisitely reproduced color photographs and concise historical-cultural commentary for under $30 -- perfect for armchair cosmopolitans (Eyewitness has the slightly better illustrations, Knopf the better commentary).
The B-ballers speak
Antiglobalist academic Benjamin Barber angrily throws Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, and Langston Hughes in Martha Nussbaum’s face. Conservative legal scholar Michael McConnell haughtily throws Edmund Burke and Martin Luther King, Jr., in Ms. Nussbaum’s face.
Meanwhile, over vast reaches of the planet, nobody much cares what opponents of cosmopolitanism like Barber and McConnell think. Billions of people are becoming what you might call intuitive cosmopolitans . . . in part through the game of basketball.
Basketball -- as you may have noticed -- is the world’s fastest-growing sport, second in popularity now only to soccer. Over one billion people watched the NBA finals last year.
What’s less apparent to those outside the pull of the game is that it’s fiercely cosmopolitan. It was invented by a Canadian, is played in gyms, playgrounds, fields, and alleys in every country on Earth by people from the age of four on up, and has developed a pantheon of professional stars of all races, sexes, creeds, and ethnic groups.
Beyond all that, it’s developed a cosmopolitan aura, virtually an ideology, brilliantly captured by senior Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff in his book Big Game, Small World (2002).
Wolff seeks out basketballers wherever he can find them -- in Peoria, El Paso, and Princeton, New Jersey, but also in France, Lithuania, Poland, Bosnia, Israel, China, Japan, Bhutan, Brazil, Angola. . . . The cast of the book includes players of all ages and talent levels, coaches, hangers-on, rabid fans, philosophical fans, and other classic sports types.
At first you’re simply amused when Wolff tells you about a mini-hoop mounted on a street performer’s guitar case in Dublin so passers-by can “slam-dunk” change; or when he spies Slam Magazine on sale at a state-run store in Beijing.
But by the end of the book, he has you thinking that everyone playing the game or who once played the game or who just loves watching the game is connected to everyone else in some mystical way in the rapidly-expanding basketball universe -- which is ultimately a meritocracy stressing virtues that the Buddha and William Bennett would approve of, like the right combination of toughness and sweetness, and the right proportions of hustle and intelligence, and the right balance of self-assertion and fitting in.
Alexander Wolff’s deepest theme -- just as much as it is Martha Nussbaum’s -- is that pursuit or appreciation of excellence is the universal language that can lead us to a borderless world.
Some dare call that cosmopolitanism.
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